Katelyn Luong remembers all the way back to Sippican Elementary School and always looking toward the next thing. Turns out the next thing is the adult life, and this life as a kid is about to end.
A day before speaking as valedictorian to the Old Rochester Regional High School Class of 2021, Luong said, “It’s good to take the time and suck in the present moment.”
This would be a major point in Luong’s June 5 valedictory, a speech she could not begin preparing until receiving the call from ORR Principal Michael Devoll only four days prior. It’s a good thing that the highest grade point average is not determined until the final week of the academic year because this valedictorian’s mind had not yet wrung out her takeaways from an experience unique to this generation of high school graduates.
The coronavirus pandemic played a role in awakening the 17-year-old Marion resident to how precious her childhood has been. On the precipice of college, she began to see those 12 years of school as another lifetime.
“I was thinking a lot about it the last few weeks of senior year,” said Luong. “I love being with my friends. I hadn’t seen half my grade in half a year, that’s when I started to reflect.” The message to her classmates will be to “go to college with that mentality.”
Luong’s message was established in her mind not in the whimsical, hair-prepping moment that Ferris Bueller turns to the mirror to tell us how life moves fast, and we could miss his rambunctious day off in Chicago. In Luong’s ears, the message resonated through the quiet days, weeks, and months of 2020 when she didn’t know if the life she now realizes she loved so much was already gone.
When school opened last year in a hybrid attendance format, expectation of a full in-person return to school was not high. “I think going into the year it was pretty low,” said Luong, who served on the Student Council. “We weren’t planning a prom because we didn’t think there would be a prom. We all kind of accepted not having school and not (having other senior activities).”
Kids are great adapters, and for many the remote-access life can get comfortable.
“I remember when I first heard we were going back to school; I wasn’t thrilled because I got really used to lying in bed and going to my classes on Zoom and not doing hardcore school, but once we were back I felt really good,” said Luong. “When the year progressed, and things started getting better … it was a pleasant a surprise because we really weren’t expecting anything going into the year.”
Having watched what unfolded on the Class of 2020, ORR 2021 Class President Bess Pierre shared the pessimism. “We saw it all get ripped out right from under them…. We assumed we would have the same fate,” she said. “At some point we sort of accepted it.
“At the beginning (of the 2020-21 year) we were all staying home and not seeing anybody, but as we transitioned into the hybrid … I had a newfound appreciation…. Never before did I think I would miss waking up at six in the morning to get ready to go to school. You never know what you have until it’s taken away from you.”
Only when back in the hallways, Luong realized later how very much she missed this life that she, Pierre and the 186 other ORR graduates now leave behind. If Luong is smiling a lot while finishing out the ORR girls tennis season at first doubles with Emma Vivino, it’s just her trying not to miss it.
“Make the most out of your time,” said Luong, summarizing the first main point of Saturday’s Commencement speech. She admittedly went through high school with a mentality of “Just get through the week,” but found herself in the last week of high school trying to figure out how to make the second, minute and hour hands on the clock slow down so she could savor it. “I regret not enjoying it more while it was happening.”
The challenge that faculty faced in dealing with the struggles many had with the remote-learning model was taxing, and both Luong and Pierre noticed.
“If COVID gave me anything, it was an appreciation for being in the classroom with your classmates and with your teachers, too,” said Pierre. “They really struggled … (in person is) how they’re used to teaching. I was very, very excited to be back in school and with the people I love.”
Pierre will be attending Duke University, which she noted will be Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final season at the helm of the North Carolina school’s legendary men’s basketball team. Pierre plans to study public policy or economics and augment her major with some structured education to supplement the German she spoke at home with her grandmother, who immigrated at age 18.
It’s a brave new world that today’s high school graduates embrace in a different way than most predecessors because adulthood came early for them, having to fend more for their own education, take more responsibility for their own academic destiny, and always live under the cloud of not knowing what’s next. In those dimensions, high school for them was more like college.
The lesson was not lost on Luong, whose second major point is not to worry so much.
“Everything seems to work out the way it’s going to…. There’s a point where the amount of worry you expel into the air won’t help you,” said Luong, who was thrilled to report she will be joined by a couple of friends this year at Northeastern University.
Luong plans to major in biochemistry, “but it’s subject to change.”
By Mick Colageo